Crying Dinosaur, Supersition Mountains
We've climbed this one four times now. Never a dull moment.

The approach to the base splinters off of Siphon Draw Gully trail, up a steep catclaw-infested slope — you'll want to consult a local guidebook like Phoenix Rock 2 for the full scoop on the hike and climbing route.

We've come back to this allosaurus-like spire over the years because it's relatively easy and safe compared with other climbs in the Superstition Mountain Wilderness Area, which is like the Yosemite of Phoenix metro climbing. The Arizona Mountaineering Club climbs here frequently, and the anchor points are big chains connected to bolts drilled and cemented into the rock. The exciting part for lead climbers comes between those anchors. There are handholds aplenty, but not always much protection to clip the rope into, leaving open the possibility of a serious lead fall.

We rarely feel so focused as on the last pitch of the climb, a moonlike surface of ancient lava full of fractures and crescents and edges. We know we won't fall. But we could fall. And that would be bad.

Crying Dinosaur has surprises, like a shaded, horizontal crevice to crawl through. Or handholds that unexpectedly come loose.

We think the free-hanging, double-rope rappel at the end of the experience alone is worth the price of admission. Nothing like admiring the view while dangling with 100 feet of air below our feet.

Camelback Mountain/Echo Canyon Recreation Area
We've gotten way more out of Camelback Mountain over the years than heart-stopping views and heart-pounding workouts. But be warned: What we're about to describe is not for the faint of heart. In fact, you're best off consulting a professional — or at least a guidebook — before embarking on this adventure, if you're a novice.

The sketchy rock-climbing routes on this centrally located desert mountain are mandatory test pieces for every aspiring local climber. Ridge Route, a climb on the western end of the headwall, is exposed and scary enough to change a climber's opinion forever about the difficulty levels found in climbing guides. But even better than the climb itself, which is quite high but has only a few interesting moves, is the rappel waiting at the top of the route.

At the top of the headwall near the sloping edge of a north-facing cliff are two tiny metal bolts drilled and cemented into the rock. We don't just feel butterflies as we step off that edge — it's like we just swallowed the whole Butterfly Pavilion at the Desert Botanical Garden. As unlikely as it seems, the ancient bolts are fine anchors for our long ropes, and we feel good enough to admire the shiny vehicle rooftops in the Echo Canyon parking lot and the Lilliputian hikers, so safe and unconcerned as we hang in the breeze on narrow cords of Kevlar.

What makes this rappel special is the perspective: At the start, we appear to be at least 300 feet off the ground. That's because the rappel ends on a conical point of rock that's still more than 100 feet off the deck — we have to climb down that part. For even more thrill, try it on a windy day. You'll feel like one of those baby spiders floating away at the end of Charlotte's Web.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park Rodeo Arena
As veteran hikers of Camelback Mountain and Squaw — ahem — Piestewa Peak, we try to make an occasional hajj to Quartz Peak in the way, way southwest Valley. The trail has a sweet, 1,000-feet-per-mile ratio like the Valley's two most popular mountains, but is more than twice as long. This is the perfect calf-burning grade that feels as much like a workout as a hike, thus providing a good excuse for spending the day traipsing around gorgeous, cactus-covered countryside.

We've seen bighorn sheep and coyotes on the way to the amazing summit, which is a giant block of white quartz. Phoenix is like a gold and green tapestry in the distance.

We just wish it were closer. The exit off Interstate 10 at Jackrabbit Trail is remote enough from just about any other Valley location, but that's just the first step. You still have to drive another 10 miles south, then take a twisting desert road for high-clearance vehicles only to the trailhead.

But Quartz Peak is only sort of remote. Once, when we did this hike in early June, there were literally no human beings around for miles. Yet just over the hill was a buzzing metropolis of more than 3 million people. That's kind of nifty, if you think about it.

Yeah, we don't really like to hike, either. In fact, we're not much for any form of exercise that involves standing up. But we're easily distracted, so we can force ourselves onto the treadmill as long it involves an iPod, television, and plenty of Propel. Oh, and snacks.

But it's hard to take the TV on a hike, and our snack bag gets heavy, which is why were delighted to learn about Maricopa County's hike series, put on at parks including Estrella, Usery Park, and McDowell Mountain.

But this isn't your typical Sierra Club-style hike. There was the Elvis Memorial Hike (prizes to people — and dogs — dressed like the King), the Snake Feeding hike, and even a hike devoted to scat, where a ranger taught participants to identify different kinds of animal feces. (No shit.) That one's definite motivation to leave the iPod at home — you wouldn't want to miss a word of that tour and step in the wrong place!

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Unless you're one of those "green" parents who strap a backpack on their kid when he's 2, hiking is probably an afterthought for you and your busy clan. After all, there are scads of things to do that don't require clambering on rocks and fending off snakes — and most of those other places have bathrooms.

We have the perfect solution for 'tweeners: a day hike at Papago Park. For most Phoenicians, the park is easily reached because of its central location, and it's accessible in other ways, too. Unlike places where existing pathways govern your route, Papago has no formal marked trails, so you can wander where you please for as long (or as short) as you please. There are two regions that are especially amenable for those with younger kids: the area surrounding the landmark named Hole-in-the-Rock (use the turn-in for Phoenix Zoo) and the one located near the picnic ramada on West Park Drive (see the map at the Web site noted above).

The first, in addition to some easy trekking over mild hills, offers access to the Papago lake and all of the many child-captivating creatures who live there. The second is a flat-as-a-pancake washboard plain that provides ooh-aah views of the surrounding buttes and a bounty of wild cottontail bunnies darting in and out of the brush.

Hiking boots are not required, and — oh, did we mention that there are bathrooms?

Makutu's Island
It's a jungle in there. Multistory slides. Mazes of ocean-themed connecting tubes for scampering in. A friendly treehouse. Places to climb and jump and run. Makutu's Island is like an energy-transfer facility for loud, hyper kids. It's an especially good spot to cure the cabin fever that takes hold in the dead of summer, with 20,000 square feet of air-conditioned, indoor play opportunities.

We enjoyed squeezing through the tight bends and narrow chutes of the Pirates Den with our oldest explorer — a far better experience than the sterile plastic crawl-tubes of other kid entertainment destinations. One note of caution: Although adults are allowed just about everywhere the kids can go, we dropped down one of the big slides so fast that we were afraid of crushing whatever — or whomever — was at the bottom.

We try to make it here every third month or so. The $7 per kid and $3 per adult is on par with taking the family out to a movie, except the kids might need a nap when they get home. We know we certainly need one.

In our endless quest to find something for the kids to do that doesn't involve food or a video screen, we stumbled upon Gilbert's lovely little bird park near Greenfield and Guadalupe roads. It's a bit artificial, like all other attempts to make the desert into something it isn't, but the Riparian Preserve elicits more of a feeling of wonder in children than typical lake-based Valley parks. Instead of acres of grass surrounding the lakes, like you'll see elsewhere, we found hiking paths to explore amid dense vegetation. The bushes are only about three feet high, naturally, but the place is a jungle to kids.

The trail-weary tykes spent most of their time in a shaded sandpit, digging for dinosaur bones. (Success guaranteed; there's a permanent stockpile.) The lumpy vertebrae and other skeletal features emerge from the sand with a bit of effort, though they won't come out entirely. We sat on one of the benches surrounding the pit, watching our future paleontologists squeal with delight as they uncovered more bones. A timeless experience.

Mother Nature's Farm
This sweet little patch is all you need to satisfy fall's pumpkin-y urges. From mid-September to mid-November every year, kids of all ages stop by to peruse the Halloween crafts in the gift shop, walk the maze, ride the hay, and even — on some days — pet an alligator. Oh, yeah, and pick out that pumpkin, for the all-important annual ritual. You can take it home and carve it, or paint it right there at Brooke's pumpkin patch.
The Phoenician, Scottsdale
We've made an unspoken deal with The Phoenician. We won't ask why you call yourself The Phoenician, but have a Scottsdale address. And you won't ask what a bunch of Jews were doing at your Easter egg hunt last year.

Actually, if you must know, we were enjoying ourselves immensely! There's no better lawn in town for an egg hunt than the beautiful expanses at this well-manicured resort. Our toddlers were delighted with the enormous Elmo and Cookie Monster that roamed the grounds, the face painting, and the beautiful day in general. Best of all, we didn't have to spend hours rooting around in our own backyard for rotten eggs!

In the ever-changing, nothing-is-sacred urban landscape that is the Valley, any spot that's been around as long as Big Surf deserves a special place in our hearts. Soon after it opened in 1969 as America's first artificial wave pool, it was pictured in National Geographic for an article on Phoenix. We'll never forget the early days of burning our feet on the sand that would heat up on the hottest summer days to temperatures found only on the surface of the sun. Well, the sand's been replaced by water-filled, shallow canals that make for easy walking, and the 2-million-gallon wave pool is still there, as good as ever.

It's an impressive and relatively safe operation thanks to its purchase by Golfland Entertainment Centers Inc. a few years ago. Apart from the main attraction, there are 15 water slides and two low-key play pools for infants and toddlers, (where you can find out if those silly "swim diapers" really work as advertised). Workers do a good job managing the hordes of visitors, many of whom are unruly brats, and somehow prevent mass drownings in the wave pool, which is large and dangerous enough to deserve respect.

Big Surf can still be something of an adventure. If you don't get there early, you might not secure that crucial shady spot on the "beach." Although it claims to open at 10 a.m., the workers made us wait twice last summer in the heat for another 30 to 45 minutes before we could get in the water — not a fun thing to do with little kids. And the crack teenage staff at the door searched our bag thoroughly for food and drinks. That way, park visitors can't avoid the overpriced food counters. We had to smuggle some juice boxes in our pants pocket. Cowabunga!

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